By Michael Bill
In common usage, a founder is an individual who creates or helps create a company, but in legal terms, there is no such thing as a “founder” or “founder’s stock,” only early participants in a company’s organization and ownership of its initial equity capital. Why is this so? Because, for all practical purposes (from a startup’s point of view), there are two types of stock – common stock and preferred stock – and “founders” are just the initial holders of the company’s common stock, usually before any financing, in-licensing, or contribution of assets. It should be noted that common stock and preferred stock can be divided further into subclasses or series (e.g., Class A common stock, or Series B preferred stock) that further differentiate the rights and privileges of the holders, and additional side agreements can be put into place to further restrict or grant rights to a particular holder of equity, but those topics are beyond the scope of this post.
As background, to create a corporation an individual (the incorporator) needs to file a certificate of incorporation with the Secretary of State of the state of organization (e.g., Massachusetts, Delaware, California, New York). Immediately thereafter, the incorporator will execute an organizational action where they will appoint the initial director(s) of the corporation and resign from their position as the incorporator. The director(s) will then have an organizational meeting where the director(s), among other things, will adopt by-laws, appoint officers, and issue stock to the initial stockholders, typically common stock. The price of that stock initially issued is very low and is normally equal to the par value per share (e.g., $0.0001/share) because the company has just been created and does not have any real value at this point in time. This initial equity is what is referred to as “founder’s stock”. And founder’s stock can be issued outright or can be subject to a vesting schedule with unvested shares forfeited back to the company in certain circumstances, usually related to termination of employment.
Why does any of this matter? From an organizational standpoint, it doesn’t matter – up until the point that the company contemplates issuing stock to employees, investors, or other individuals or acquiring or licensing assets. Often the early employees and individuals will either (i) want to receive common stock at the same price that the founder(s) paid or (ii) want to ensure their interests are protected. For more information on the latter, please read A Balanced Approach to Founder’s Equity.
If an individual wants to receive common stock at the same price paid by the founder(s) and the individual is a service provider, the individual will be deemed to have received compensation equal to the difference between the (i) fair market value of the stock received and (ii) the amount paid by the recipient; this amount can become significant depending on the then current value of the company. Note, the founders did not have to deal with this “compensation” issue because when the founders purchased their shares of the company at the organizational meeting, the fair market value of the company’s shares at such time was almost nothing (as the company had yet to conduct any business). To avoid this recognition of income, service providers will typically accept options with a purchase price per share equal to the current fair market value. Options provide the service provider with the ability to receive equity in the future without the initial upfront cost of the equity and the income tax issue does not present itself here because the exercise price of the option equals the current exercise price of the share. It should be noted that options do not provide the option holder with any rights as a stockholder. There are advantages and disadvantages of owning options in comparison to stock, and a discussion of those issues is beyond the scope of this post. But it’s also worth noting that, if six months or so after the issuance of founder’s stock there have been no activities that have created value (financing, assets, activities, etc.), it may be possible to still fairly conclude that the company is still nearly worthless, and thus still have an opportunity to issue “founder’s stock” to a new key member joining the team. You should consult your attorney when such matters arise.